"Reading Arabic is a bit like playing chess"

Tim Mackintosh-Smith's latest book – "Arabs" – reveals how linguistic developments helped and hindered the progress of Arab history. In interview with Qantara.de, he talks to Elisabeth Knoblauch about how, even in today’s politically fractured post–Arab Spring environment, Arabic itself is still a source of unity and disunity

By Elisabeth Knoblauch

Mr Mackintosh-Smith, three thousand years of Arab history! How did you come up with this idea? What was the starting point or what did you think had not been written before? What story did you want to tell?

Tim Mackintosh-Smith: It was actually Heather McCallum at Yale University Press, London, who asked me to write an Arab history. I would never have dared to undertake such a project 'off my own bat' – too presumptuous, and far too much work! Plus, one imagines that there are plenty of Arab histories around already. In fact, there aren't; or at least none that properly cover the whole timescale.

I was keen to do three things. Firstly, I wanted to say something more than other histories do about the earlier, pre-Islamic half of recorded Arab history – the 1,400 years before Muhammad – and how it inevitably shaped the latter half.

Secondly, I wanted to write a history of Arabs as such – not of the Arab conquests and of the subsequent spread of Arabic-Islamic culture, which is what Arab histories tend to become. The problem, of course, is what are Arabs 'as such', when they have been more than one thing over time.

One could take hold of several threads that bind them together, but language seemed to me to be the strongest link down the millennia. Ethnicity isn't so important – is it ever? – so I was always careful to talk about 'Arabs', not 'the Arabs', as if they have always been some homogeneous and discrete group.

Thirdly, I wanted to tell the story in a readable way. I believe a book can be scholarly and well-written at the same time. If you are inflicting 3,000-odd years and a plethora of unfamiliar names on readers, then you should at least do your best to make the writing palatable.

Cover of Tim Mackintosh-Smith's "Arabs" (published by Yale University Press)
Tim Mackintosh-Smith's kaleidoscopic book covers almost 3,000 years of Arab history and shines a light on the footloose Arab peoples and tribes who conquered lands and disseminated their language and culture over vast distances. Tracing this process to the origins of the Arabic language, rather than the advent of Islam, the narrative begins more than a thousand years before Muhammad and focuses on how Arabic, both spoken and written, has functioned as a vital source of shared cultural identity over the millennia

Yemen, a central country in Arab history


You wrote the book "Arabs: A 3000-year history" during your time in Yemen. When did you arrive there and when did you have to leave?

Mackintosh-Smith: I first went to Yemen in 1982 and, apart from a year back at Oxford, continued to live there in the Old City of Sanaa. I was there through the worst years – so far – of the current war, and never, in fact, 'had' to leave. Rather, I travelled out of the country in 2019 with two members of a Sanaani family to whom I've always been close, to support their university studies in Malaysia. I still consider myself a resident of Sanaa. My house awaits me, and my library, and the rest of the family.

Yemen – or the area in the south of the Arabian peninsula – for you is the central country, a focal point, from which you can tell a lot about Arab history. Why is it of such central importance?

Mackintosh-Smith: At first sight, Yemen appears peripheral to the Arab(ic) world today, geographically and politically. And the earlier pre-Islamic settled inhabitants of the region did not, in their own day and their own estimation, even regard themselves as 'Arabs'. But some important aspects of their culture, political, social, religious and so on, contributed hugely to the post-Muhammadan gestalt – if one can call it that – of Arabdom.

Not only that: they were arabicised, linguistically and, in part, culturally, in the centuries before Islam; then, during the Arab conquests that came with Islam, there were simply not enough 'technical' Arabs (in the sense of nomadic, tribal Arabic-speakers) to do the conquering.

Southern Arabians were thus co-opted into being Arab, and provided much of the manpower and lifeblood of empire.

Later on, in the second, 'softer' wave of Arab expansion that took place around the littoral of the Indian Ocean from the 13th and 14th centuries AD onward, Yemenis were also in the forefront. Seen on that larger-scale map of the Arab(ic) and Arab-influenced world – one that stretches not just from the Atlantic to the Gulf, but on to the East Indies – Yemen begins to look more central.

Arabic, the lingua franca


You have written almost 600 pages about the ‘arab. Who were they, why did they become so meaningful if, in the beginning, they were just, as you write "those marginal, wandering, numerically insignificant tribes".

Mackintosh-Smith: Well, 'marginal . . . tribes' is what the term 'arab seems to have meant, in general, in the oldest historical records, going back to the early part of the 1st millennium BC. There were, of course, many reasons they became so meaningful: an important one was the use of the combination of camel + horse, which enabled long-distance raids and, ultimately, conquests. But if we single out one particular reason for their eventual meaningfulness, it is probably language.

I am no expert on German history, but something like the process by which a unifying tongue created the idea of cultural, and then political unity, among disparate groups, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Germany – something like this happened nearly 2,000 years before, with Arabic. It might have all subsequently withered away, but the language was enshrined untouchably in a book – the Koran – and then became the lingua franca of a vast empire.To draw a further parallel, the Anglo-Saxons were another body of people who were geographically marginal and numerically insignificant in origin. But they gained meaning beyond their numbers by forming a cultural group with a language that would eventually spread, a thousand years later, via imperial expansion. That language, English, would survive as the binding force of a 'cultural empire' after the political (British) empire had fallen apart.

You write a lot about the opposites hadari – the settled – and badawi – the nomadic. Can you explain?

Mackintosh-Smith: In short, settled people had to co-operate, and to develop systems of governance – particularly, in the Arabian setting, when it came to controlling precious water resources for agriculture. Pastoral nomads can, of course, co-operate too, but in the Arabian Peninsula and neighbouring areas, resources were always few, and many took to raiding.

Part of the genius of the early state in Medina was that it harnessed together the dynamic raiders – the badw – and the organised traders and agriculturalists – the hadar. It was by no means the first such instance of harnessing, but it was the most successful.

The balance between the two groups is, however, hard to maintain, and nomads (or, today, people who act like raiding nomads) have often militated against successful states. It's all a huge subject, and one on which the great Ibn Khaldun was so eloquent.

Mediaeval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (photo: Reda Kerbush, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
The historical concept of 'social cohesion': Ibn Khaldun, born 27 May 1332 in Tunis and arguably the greatest Arab historian ever, developed one of the earliest non-religious philosophies of history, contained in his masterpiece, the 'Muqaddimah' or “Introduction”. He argued that the social cohesion – 'asabiyyah' – that arises spontaneously in tribes and other small kinship groups, but which can be intensified and enlarged by a religious ideology, provides the motivating force that carries ruling groups to power. Conversely, its inevitable weakening over time heralds the decline of a dynasty or empire and prepares the way for a new one, based on a group bound by a stronger cohesive force

The 'badawi' mindset


Why do you come to the conclusion, that the badawi lifestyle – even though it is on the brink of extinction today – has remained the driving force behind political and social change?

Mackintosh-Smith: It's not really the badawi lifestyle, which is indeed virtually extinct, but rather a badawi 'mindset' – I mean the idea that raiding is a useful political and economic tool, and a valid means of re-distributing power and (often scant) resources.

Arab history has been full of examples of tribes or even individual families taking power by force, monopolising that power (and, of course, redistributing some of the wealth to supporters), before in turn being overthrown.

The phenomenon is by no means limited to Arabs, but it has gained prominence in the Arab world today: much of the rest of the world has developed other means of transferring power and monopolising wealth. Ibn Khaldun, who died over 600 years ago, would not be surprised by, say, the rise to and consolidation of power by the Al Saud; mutatis mutandis, of course.

Do you think these opposites still have any relevance for the conflicts of today?

Mackintosh-Smith: It is important to remember that these opposites – or perhaps, rather, complementary forces – are still at play. For the most part, the West tends to blame itself for all the problems occurring in the Arab world, relating them to past colonialism and the borders that were drawn during that time.

But if the borders were so problematic, then why were they not simply erased by Arabs when they gained independence? A large part of the answer is that Arabs are as human as the rest of us, and vested interests prevailed and were fuelled – what's more – by the discovery of vast amounts of oil and gas.

You write about three leading pre-Islamic goddesses. Why didn’t they prevail? How did the one God, that is now so central to the lives of millions of people around the world become the most important, indeed, the only deity?

Mackintosh-Smith: Pious Muslims would say that the one God prevailed because He was right. Looking at events from a historian's point of view, monotheism had been the rising international trend for several centuries at the time of Muhammad, and was – in different forms – the state religion of the great contemporary empires, Byzantium and Persia.

For Arabians, too, theological and political unity would feed into and re-inforce each other: the great Arab conquests would have been impossible to achieve without the political unity brought about by adhering to one God. The conquests in turn disseminated the belief in that one God. In a sense, a deity functions as an expression of the will of its worshippers, and when the deity is one, clearly defined, all-powerful, so is the earthly will.Arabic is a very difficult language. You write: "Without vowel marks or periods, a simple group of two letters could theoretically be read in 300 different ways." In your research of the Arabic history and its language, have you come across the reason for its difficulty?

Mackintosh-Smith: You mean, 'without vowel marks or letter-dots'. I don't know whether we actually know why these particular difficulties arose. When Arabic began to be written down, well into the first millennium AD, it drew on the letters of the Nabataean script, but economised on some of the letter-forms.

Thus, one single Arabic form can represent as many as five different consonants, which can only be distinguished by adding different arrangements of dots. The dots only came into use with time. And the problem was compounded by the fact that the short vowels are generally not shown.

These shortcomings don't matter so much when you're reading something very formulaic, meaning you can probably predict much of what it's going to say. But they matter more when you're writing down a text of immense subtlety like the Koran – hence the need to develop those letter-dots and vowel marks. They were used in the Koran from fairly early on. But a lot of other texts were sparsely dotted, and even today they are very rarely vowelled. Reading Arabic is thus a bit like playing chess: you always have to read predictively. Reading English or German is more straightforward, like playing checkers.

Can you tell us a little more about the emergence of the Arabic language?

Mackintosh-Smith: There's inevitably a lot of speculation involved. But it's fairly clear that, compared with other languages in the so-called Semitic group, Arabic preserves some features that are probably very archaic indeed. In other words, at least part of what became Arabic probably reflects aspects of 'Semitic' as it was at a very early period, perhaps in the fifth millennium BC. Languages of course diverge over time, then branch out into dialects, and Arabic was (and is) no different.

Al-Fatiha sura; calligraphy by Aziz Efendi (d. 16 August 1934) - Muhittin Serin: Hattat Aziz Efendi. Istanbul 1988. ISBN 375-7663-03-4 Invalid ISBN. p.53., Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Arab community does not live in a land, it lives in a language: "No one speaks 'high Arabic' as their mother tongue – and no one ever has done so. At the same time, it is a language of incredible beauty, flexibility and power," says Mackintosh-Smith. "Arabs aspire to it, even if most of them find it hard to write and even harder to speak. It provides them with an identity, a cultural homeland"

What is notable is that, in addition to the branching out, something akin to a poetic koine had come into use quite some time before Islam – a special, elevated language used by poets, seers and orators. It was in this special language that the Koran was revealed.

The fact that the Koran was written down immediately (thus becoming the first Arabic book) turned it into a literary language. It is this language that has unified Arab(ic) culture, whatever dialects people actually speak, even though Arabs have generally been politically disunited.

Is Arabic in a way artificial?

Mackintosh-Smith: As no one speaks 'high Arabic' as their mother tongue – and no one ever has done so – in a sense, yes, it is artificial. At the same time, it is a language of incredible beauty, flexibility and power. Arabs aspire to it, even if most of them find it hard to write and even harder to speak. It provides them with an identity, a sort of cultural homeland. As the Tunisian intellectual and former head-of-state, Moncef Marzouki, put it, the Arab community 'does not live in a land, it lives in a language.'

How did you succeed in learning it? What, for you is the biggest challenge in speaking and reading it? And what do you love most about it?

Mackintosh-Smith: I started off with a dictionary and a book of simple texts, and shut myself away in a cottage in the Western Isles of Scotland. And I had some great teachers at Oxford. But I can't really say that I got 'inside' Arabic until I went to Yemen in 1982.

Living there for years, and speaking the local dialect, taught me an immense amount – of course. But I also picked up the Yemeni habit of chewing the stimulant leaf of qat, and developed my own habit of sitting ingesting qat leaves and the leaves of Arabic books every day, for three or four hours. That really helped!

I am happily at home speaking the dialect of the Yemeni capital Sanaa; speaking more 'formal' Arabic, you always have to think ahead of yourself. As for reading, I quite often find myself puzzling over precise meanings in poetry and rhyming prose: some writers rejoice in being obscure and teasingly playful.

And then you come to clearings in the forest of meaning where sound, sense and simplicity come together. At such moments, you can be utterly enchanted: the best words in the best order, working directly on the emotions. 

Can you tell us something about your next project?

Mackintosh-Smith: I'm working on an edition and translation, for the New York University Press Library of Arabic Literature, of Ibn Khaldun's autobiography. It's a fascinating text: mixed in with his own roller-coaster life story, filled with political shenanigans and personal tragedy, he quotes quite a lot of rhymed prose and poetry by himself and his friends. The whole thing is thus a sort of self-reflective politico-literary scrapbook of the later fourteenth century AD.

I'm also cooking up another history, one that like my Arabs covers a big timescale, but – mercifully – a very small geographical area, about twice the size of New York's Central Park . . . A friend of mine calls Arabs my 'monsterpiece'. This next one will be something different, a micro-epic.

Interview conducted by Elisabeth Knoblauch

© Qantara.de 2021

Tim Mackintosh-Smith is an eminent Arabist, translator and traveller whose previous publications include Travels with a Tangerine and Yemen. He has lived in the Arab world for thirty-five years and is a senior fellow of the Library of Arabic Literature.